Navah and Rabbi Jules Harlow being honored at Ansche Chesed’s Tribute Dinner April 29th 2018
At a Shabbat dinner in Lisbon one Friday night, there was an unlikely new face in attendance—an elderly man that no one had met before. Unlike the rest of the regulars, he was not from Lisbon, nor was he Jewish, yet he had travelled over 200 miles to attend this Shabbat dinner because he had a story he wanted to tell the rabbi. He told the crowd that he was raised in a community where certain family secrets and traditions were passed down through the generations from mother to daughter. However, as there were no surviving women in his family, when his grandmother was on her death bed she called him in and told him that she had some very important words that he must learn, memorize, and write down for safekeeping. They were in strange language, so he later went out in search of someone who could decipher them, and ended up being told by a priest with a background in Biblical Hebrew that these words were “Shema Yisrael”—Hear, O Israel.
He attended the Shabbat dinner in Lisbon that evening where he told his story and although he did not feel the need to pursue his family’s Jewish heritage any further he nonetheless felt a need—a yearning to have his family’s story documented.
His story, however, did not seem odd to the other two dozen members of the congregation. Nearly all of them discovered some crypto-Jewish practices, which had been kept alive in their families for over 500 years. The Bnei Anusim (lit. children of forced converts) trace their lineage back to the time of the inquisition when Jews were forcibly converted to Christianity in the 1490’s in Spain and Portugal. Many had retained Jewish practices and even 500 years later, many Portuguese families still continue to discover aspects of crypto-Jewish practice in their families’ traditions linking them to Jewish ancestry, such as lighting candles of Friday night, maintaining two sets of silverware or simply a tacit family understanding that they are of Jewish descent.
One thing that everyone gathered at this Shabbat dinner had in common was a sense of yearning. A yearning to return to the faith of their ancestors. It was this common yearning that led them to find each other online and start this community. Another unique aspect of this story is the fact that the Bnei Anusim in Lisbon latched on to Masorti Judaism.
Having made several unsuccessful attempts to contact the Orthodox community where in Lisbon where they were rebuffed, the community contacted Masorti Olami asking for help. Rabbi Joe Wernik, then Executive Director of Masorti Olam tapped Rabbi Jules and Navah Harlow for this mission. He told them that Masorti Olami must go and check out this community and see what their situation is. Were it to become clear that the community was not substantial, then they could merely write a report about it and leave it at that, but if they found a community that really was serious and looking to return to halachic Judaism, then it would be an opportunity to perform a huge Mitzvah. Navah still is amazed by the dedication that Masorti Olami showed in bringing this one community back into the Jewish fold.
On their first visit, the Harlows were overwhelmed by the warm welcome they received and by the dedication of the community who clearly viewed themselves as Jews and had already arranged weekly meetings in a nearly abandoned synagogue owned by the dwindling Polish Jewish community. They were very eager to learn. Until then, they knew only what they had read on their own. That first Shabbat, after a “learning Kabbalat Shabbat service” they participated in a family style Friday night dinner. The Harlows had brought challot and other food from New York, taught them the rituals prior to the meal, including n’tilat yadayim, Kiddush and ha-Motzi. They began to learn to sing zemirot, birkat ha-mazon and with tears in their eyes, said that this was the first time they felt that they belonged.
Rabbi Jules and Navah spent the entire trip teaching daily sessions and explained that despite their Jewish ancestry, the path to full integration into Jewish life would require extensive study, full adoption of Jewish practice, as well as undergoing conversion. The community had a strong desire to lead Jewish lives, and agreed to pursue this course.
In the beginning the community was limited by the fact that they had no ritual objects, so upon their return to New York the Harlows made an appeal to members of their Minyan at Ansche Chesed, the Men’s Clubs and other associates of theirs for ritual objects to allow this community in Portugal to practice as Jews. Tefillin, tallitot, and many other ritual items came pouring in, but one thing that Rabbi Jules and Navah insisted on with each donation was that the donors write a personal note and share their e-mail addresses with the recipients, thereby creating a direct link between the community in Portugal and the world Jewish community.
This connection that the Harlows built with the community of Bnei Anusim in Lisbon began back in 2005. Since then they have made 41 trips to Lisbon as volunteers to teach and help lead the community and guide them in their path to Jewish practice. At one point the Harlows were travelling to Lisbon four of five times each year. They celebrated Chanukah and Purim with them, instructing them in the meaning and traditions associated with each holiday. Tisha B’Av was a memorable occasion when they sat on the floor with them, with lighted candles reading from Eichah, the Scroll of Lamentations.
During this time they prepared learning tapes and YouTube videos of b’rachot and tefillot, held classes on Jewish thought, text, practice and ritual and the weekly Parshah—a class that they maintain through e-mail to this day. In those initial years they taught members of the community what it is to live a Jewish life, and guided them step by step through the entire Jewish lifecycle as they prepared them to undergo conversion with the Bet Din and prepare them to become formally reintegrated with the Jewish people.
An emotional highlight of the cooperation occurred in 2006, after one and a half years of study, when Rabbi Jules deemed that seven members of the Lisbon community had fulfilled the requirements for halachic conversions. Rabbi Jules and Navah accompanied them to London, where Rabbi Chaim Weiner, director of the European Masorti Beit Din convened a Masorti Beit Din. They felt that they had been waiting 500 years for this day to arrive.
Subsequently, as they fulfilled the requirements exacted by Rabbi Jules, he and Navah brought the others to London for halachic conversion. Later, a Masorti Bet Din was held in Lisbon when additional members of the community underwent conversion. This was a moment in history: the first Masorti Bet Din to be held in the Iberian Peninsula!
To this day, the Kehillah in Lisbon still faces challenges and remains excluded by the Orthodox community in Lisbon which toes the line of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate regarding Conservative Conversions. Isolated among Portugal’s already miniscule Jewish population, the Masorti Jews in Lisbon have recently begun pairing up with the Masorti Community in Madrid for the Pesach Seder and members will be going to Madrid again for the third year.
Following the previous shared Seder in Madrid, one member from Lisbon reflected on the Seder and on her own community’s faith journey saying “It’s not just a question to obey a commandment. Once a year, every year, every Jew is commanded to relive the oppression in Egypt. It´s more like a reminder that the battle for freedom, ultimately, is never won; that freedom is not granted, but must be fought in every generation.”.
Throughout the process the Harlows sometimes wondered why people would decide to become Jewish in today’s hostile environment in Western Europe, but the congregation in Lisbon always reminds them that they did not decide to be Jews—they already were and it took them 500 years to return.
Masorti Olami would like to congratulate Rabbi Jules and Navah Harlow on being honorees at Congregation Ansche Chesed’s Gala Tribute event and is taking this opportunity to share with our readers the tremendous efforts that the Harlows have made to advance Judaism around the world. To recognize their fantastic work, ads can be placed in their honor in the Ansche Chesed Tribute Journal by clicking here.